Congress

Freedom Caucus steps into the GOP messaging gap

Conservative hard-liners fill vacuum to counterpunch for Trump

From right, Reps. Mark Meadows, Matt Gaetz, Jim Jordan and Scott Perry are among the president‘s top defenders in the House. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

Mark Meadows’ gaze was scrupulously trained on Adam B. Schiff.

On Oct. 3, after deposing a former Trump official for hours, Schiff, the House Intelligence chairman, emerged from a secure room in the Capitol’s basement and addressed a waiting television camera.

“Encouraging a foreign nation to interfere again, to help his campaign,” the California Democrat said of President Donald Trump’s July 25 phone call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy. That conversation has become the focus of House Democrats’ impeachment inquiry, and Schiff and party leaders argue it represents a “fundamental breach of the president’s oath of office.”

Just out of the camera’s frame stood Meadows, a former chairman of the hard-line conservative House Freedom Caucus, his unblinking eyes locked on Schiff.

The North Carolina Republican and his caucus colleagues watch Schiff’s every move, loading his missteps into their arsenal of talking points designed to discredit the man tasked with ensuring Trump’s demise.

“This is not a fair process,” Meadows said on Oct. 8, after Schiff spoke outside the Sensitive Compartmented Information Facility. “You know, he came out here, you may have noticed that. He came out here [to] the press and what did he do? He gave this benign thing and then raced off to a fundraiser.”

By diligently counterpunching Schiff’s messaging, Meadows, his Freedom Caucus colleagues and a phalanx of ideological brethren have established themselves as Trump’s front line of defense in the House, jumping out in front of even House Republican leadership.

It may seem strange that House members with no ties to party infrastructure are the president’s leading defenders against impeachment.

GOP leaders, with institutional power, are those typically positioned to combat Democrats procedurally in Congress and in the press. And California Rep. Devin Nunes, the top Republican on House Intelligence, would be the logical counterweight to Schiff.

But leadership missteps have created a vacuum that Freedom Caucus leaders have been willing to try to fill.

House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy’s late September appearance on CBS’ “60 Minutes,” for example, opened the door. Booked to defend Trump’s call with Zelenskiy, McCarthy stumbled.

“How do you expect the president’s defense to roll out going forward?” host Scott Pelley asked McCarthy.

“The defense of what?” the California Republican replied.

The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee used that quote, along with a few others, to poke McCarthy in an Oct. 10 email titled, “McCarthy is still searching for talking points to justify his political agenda.” The DCCC, though, ignored the Freedom Caucus.

Every breath you take

Meadows had been tailing Schiff since the first House Intelligence hearing related to impeachment on Sept. 26. With the acting director of national intelligence waiting to testify, Schiff recited his own version of dialogue based on a White House-released readout of the Trump-Zelenskiy call.

“We’ve been very good to your country, very good. … But you know what, I don’t see much reciprocity,” Schiff said as if he were Trump on the phone with Zelenskiy. “I want you to make up dirt on my political opponent. Understand? Lots of it.”

Shortly after Schiff’s monologue, Meadows — who is not on the Intelligence panel — appeared in the doorway of the committee room. A day later, Arizona Rep. Andy Biggs, who succeeded Meadows as Freedom Caucus chairman, introduced a censure motion against Schiff for his embellishment. McCarthy later signed on as a co-sponsor.

Schiff, the de facto capo of the three committees — Intelligence, Oversight and Foreign Affairs — tasked with investigating whether Trump pressured the Ukrainian government to investigate a political rival, has nevertheless trudged forward. Committee staff deposed administration officials and subpoenaed documents at Schiff’s direction, and panel members have heard testimony — all behind closed doors.

Former U.S. envoy to Ukraine Kurt Volker was the first former administration official Schiff deposed. During Volker’s closed-door testimony, former Freedom Caucus Chairman Jim Jordan of Ohio, flanked by Meadows and Pennsylvania Rep. Scott Perry, charged to staged microphones to feed news-starved reporters.

“Not one thing [Volker] has said comports with any of the Democrats’ impeachment narrative,” Jordan said, before ripping Schiff for blocking State Department counsel from the deposition and trying to stop members from questioning Volker.

“If this is how Mr. Schiff is going to conduct these types of interviews in the future, that’s a concern,” Jordan added.

On Monday, as Fiona Hill, Trump’s former Russia adviser, headed into the SCIF for her deposition, Jordan, Perry and New York Rep. Lee Zeldin (who is not in the Freedom Caucus but has been a consistent defender of the president regarding impeachment) were there to reiterate their message to the press. 

“They’re making it up as they go along,” Jordan said, adding, “We would hope that they would actually open this process up so that the other 423 members of Congress, who have no idea what’s happening in these closed-door sessions, could see and, more importantly, you in the press could see and the American people could see.”

Another concern for Jordan is Schiff’s claim that Intelligence Committee staff have not spoken with the White House whistleblower, whose complaint is key evidence in the inquiry. Staff did have contact with the whistleblower.

“You have a chairman of the committee who is so biased against this president that he wouldn’t even tell us that he had met with — his staff had met with — the whistleblower,” Jordan said on Oct. 8, this time with Meadows, Perry and Florida Rep. Matt Gaetz by his side.

Schiff’s claim earned him “four Pinocchios” from The Washington Post’s Fact Checker.

Jordan and Meadows are members of the Oversight and Reform panel, and as members of one of the three investigatory committees, their attendance at the depositions are part of their jobs.

Their broadsides at Trump’s foes, though, aren’t required but certainly have not gone unnoticed at the White House.

Some disconnect

Freedom Caucus members assert they were elected to Congress to snuff out government corruption and to shrink federal spending.

Trump, like many of his predecessors, has increased spending, the national debt and deficit. The Freedom Caucus would likely turn away any aspiring member with that CV. And their clashing ideologies have previously turned into public sparring.

Ahead of last year’s midterms, Trump wanted voters to oust the Freedom Caucus as payback for their blocking of a bill to replace the 2010 health care law. The legislation didn’t go far enough for many in the caucus so they helped kill it, delivering on their campaign promises while depriving Trump a win.

Still, the relationship is mutually beneficial.

Should Trump win reelection in 2020 and Republicans retake the House, the Freedom Caucus will have a stack of chits redeemable at the Oval Office, as well as a robust voting bloc to extract concessions from leadership, as it previously did in the majority.

Any other 2020 electoral outcome, of course, would leave the caucus adrift in a rudderless minority, or facing a Democratic president.

So why not go all-in on Trump?

The commander in chief seems to have noticed.

Trump invited Meadow on Thursday to a White House event on federal regulation transparency, and during a televised colloquy with the press, he had the former Freedom Caucus chairman stand just behind his right shoulder, sharing some of his spotlight.

Perhaps even more flattering, the only member of Congress whom @RealDonaldTrump follows on Twitter is Jordan.

Get breaking news alerts and more from Roll Call on your iPhone.